Only Matthew contains the command to “make disciples of all nations.” If we are to accomplish this directive, we will need to learn what it entails in Matthew. (I am not implying that the same concept is not contained in the other Gospels or Paul’s writing, but that our first place for grasping what is meant by the phrase is to explore the context where it is used.)
How does Jesus make disciples in Matthew? He calls groups and individuals to follow him. He involves them in two parts of his three-fold ministry. He disciples them to the point of making the good confession. Jesus creates a setting where they discover his true identity. While the people believe he is John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or another of the prophets who has re-appeared, Peter knows better. Simon “Rocky” Johnson has grasped the heavenly revelation of Jesus’ identity! He declares that Jesus is the long-promised Messiah, he is the “Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
But this recognition of Jesus’ identity and participation in his ministry of preaching and healing is not enough. At this exact moment Matthew tells us Jesus makes a second major transition:
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21). Peter pulls him aside and rebukes Jesus.
Did you get that? Immediately after confessing him, Peter rejects what Jesus says must happen.
I believe that disciples are people who know Jesus’ identity—they get the divine revelation. But we have always struggled with the implications of his mission. Many of us plunge into aspects of his ministry (preaching, teaching and healing). But will we take up our cross and follow him to death? In the first Gospel disciples are not ready to teach until they grasp his mission. You will not “teach them to obey everything” Jesus has commanded until you accept the world-shaking implications of his death.
I am not talking about being able to give a description of “substitutionary atonement.” Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26). Being a disciple entails self-denial. Here is the greatest challenge.
All the way to Jerusalem the twelve are going to bicker and quarrel over who is the greatest. It seriously looks like they will all fail their final exam. In actuality, they do. Peter denies he knows Jesus. They all scatter. We know what Judas does.
But Jesus’ resurrection is God’s answer to our failures. Matthew tells of only two of his post-resurrection appearances (Matthew 28). He sends the women from the tomb to remind his “brothers” to go to Galilee “to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go” (Matthew 28:16). By obeying Jesus they reveal they are finally ready to be sent out as teachers. But note with me once again, their teaching is narrowly defined—“teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
I believe we damage ourselves with a Harmony of the Gospels approach, because we miss the unique depths of each of the Gospels. I am convinced Matthew’s five great teaching sections grapple with core issues of discipleship:
- chapters 5-7 the teaching on the mount in Galilee
- chapter 10 the sending of the twelve
- chapter 13 the parables on the Kingdom
- chapter 18 the teaching on greatness in the Kingdom
- chapters 24-25 the teaching on the mount of Olives.
Each section ends with the same phrase: “And when Jesus finished these sayings…” (Matthew 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). These large blocks of material should be prominent in our discovery studies on the nature of discipleship. But we also must give careful attention to how Jesus made disciples—his actions—as well as what he taught. Making disciples calls us to follow Jesus!