Matthew 28:16-20

A reflection on the call to ‘disciple’

by Dan Spragg

There are a number of teachers in our midst. I myself was a teacher in a previous life. As a teacher one is always concerned with finding the best way for students to learn. I know that with any changes I made to my teaching practise my hope was that I would engage students better and help them learn better. Pedagogy – the method and practice of teaching is important. Time and time again there are arguments about the best way that people learn – there are many nuances and different parts to that process – however, throughout history, I believe we see a model that is proven and successful – especially if the topic has a hands-on or practical or active component to it. What makes a good learning experience and environment? Time and time again apprenticeships come out on top as providing good long-term learning processes. The underlying assumption of apprenticeships is that the learner learns best when exposed to and is able to be involved with the work and information itself. Now this is true across the board in life. We learn as we observe and try and reflect and have to explain it ourselves. There is input and observation but there is also the act of doing and reflecting. As we do more we learn more until eventually we can work without supervision and potentially turn to the next person and lead them through the same process (which of course helps us learn even more – because we are never finished learning!).

A simple explanation of the apprenticeship process from the perspective of the teacher is this: 1. I’ll do, you watch. 2. I’ll do, you help. Now there’s a switch – 3. You do, I’ll help. And finally, 4. You do, I’ll watch (and cheer you on).[1] The apprenticeship model is an immersive, relationship-based, reflective process where the ‘master’ is passing on their own set of skills and knowledge. It can be a very rewarding experience. I know that I have a couple of past students of mine who now when I see and hear them play the drums just blow my mind at what they are able to do and it is an amazing feeling to know that I was a part of that – that they took what I gave them, turned it into their own thing and grew it from there – it’s awesome.

In Jewish culture and practise the apprentice model was very normal. A Rabbi would have their collection of apprentices – called disciples – who would follow them around picking up everything they possibly could from their master. The goal, essentially, was to emulate and embody not only what their teacher did but also who they were. It was immersive and total. The teacher would give them tasks to do and reflect with them on how it went etc and slowly over time the students grew into mature followers of the particular person. Jesus did this with his own disciples. We see this in the gospels quite clearly. Right at the end of Matthew’s gospel, with our text today, Jesus tells his disciples that they are to now do what he has been doing all along which gives a pattern for all those throughout time who have said yes to following Jesus. The master turns to the students and says, it’s all yours.

It is quite natural when we come across a good thing to want to share that with others. It’s hard to keep good things to ourselves, and we shouldn’t! We all know someone who has become an ambassador of sorts for one thing or another. I went to a whisky tasting back in January and it was an amazing experience, and not just because of the alcohol content! Our guide for the day was a whisky evangelist! His passion for whisky was palpable and you could tell he was simply in his element. It was hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. We left the tasting feeling as though we had been on an adventure!

Somewhere in history, the idea of sharing our faith in the way of Jesus became hard to do to the point in which it no longer felt like a natural thing. You’d think that a natural extension of following Jesus would be to share that with others but it’s not always that simple. It became hijacked by a particular way of sharing that doesn’t sit well with us. And so, for many of us, it actually became hard to talk about faith and the way of Jesus, even if we were excited about it. This passage at the end of Matthew’s gospel typically has become the catchcry for a sort of militant evangelism. It’s appealing to those who respond to a set of marching orders. It says, ‘Go!’ after all. The street preachers and sign wavers love this verse because, on the face of it, it is a clear instruction to get out and do something. Now, I know for many of you and for many in my parent’s generation that the Billy Graham crusades were a significant part of your faith journey. This style of evangelism encapsulates what people have taken these verses to mean. Get out there and tell as many people as possible about Jesus and get them to make a decision about whether they are going to follow or not. Now I don’t doubt Billy Graham’s motives. He was passionate about the message of Jesus and had a call and a gift to share it with many people. But the way it was done contained quite a bit of guilt and was very concerned with getting people ‘over the line.’ There’s a problem with that. It assumes that if someone says the ‘sinners prayer’ it means that they have reached the goal of faith – that being a decision. But, even if Billy Graham was a significant time in your own faith journey you know that that moment was not the end, but only the beginning. More is needed for the long haul.

It’s obvious from the passage that Jesus expects those of us who follow his way to do something with it. But I’m interested in this instruction, ‘Go and make disciples’. I’m interested to see if we can find a more helpful understanding to work with. From time to time digging into the original language of the text is helpful. This is one of those times. Rev Dr Mark Davis, a Presbyterian Minister in the PCUSA has done some useful work on this passage. He has noticed that the only instruction to do something in the original language is with the word ‘disciple’. The instruction we read in English is ‘go’ but in the original text, it has a passive meaning. Davis says, “It should read, “As you go …” or better “Having gone …” [2] And so, the translation should read, “Therefore, having gone, disciple all the nations, while baptizing them in the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit…”[3] What I think this indicates is that the sense of this instruction is: as you go about your living, disciple others. As you go about your living do so in such a way that you form others in the way of Jesus. This sense is emphasised even more if we consider that the verses before and after v19 where this instruction is, contain Christ as the centrepiece. It is Christ who has the authority and power. And this Christ will be with all disciples until the end of time. Davis further comments that this passage of Matthew should not be called ‘The’ great commission as it often is, but rather should be called, ‘a’ great commission. In his book, Talking About Evangelism, he compares these verses from Matthew 28 to Acts 1:8 where Luke writes another great commission, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In Luke’s commission here the disciples are waiting for the Spirit’s power; there’s kind of no instruction at all.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been with those disciples as they’ve been waiting. And we witnessed again the event of Pentecost last week where the Spirit came upon them and empowered the start of a mission explosion. Putting all this together paints a bigger picture of our work as disciples in the way of Jesus. The responsibility and the energy from which our efforts flow lie with the Spirit of Christ who has both the power and the presence to enable what we are called to do. There is a sense in which we are to simply join in, as we go about our living, with what the Spirit of God is up to in the world. As we take notice of God’s activity we are to point it out and show people and share it with them and help them grow as followers of Jesus just as we too are still on our learning journeys.

An important thing to note is that while we are to rely on Christ’s power and presence there is still the sense that we are active participants in the mission. It might indeed be Christ’s mission and not ours, but we are still called to play an active part. If we are apprentices of Jesus, discipled along our faith journey by others – then this is what we are to do for those who take to heart the power and presence of Christ in the world. We have to be willing to take others under our wings and teach them what Jesus commanded. We have to be willing to share what faith means to us and we have to be willing to invite others onto the journey. I do wonder, that as many in our tradition have rejected the unhelpful forms of evangelism, we have not replaced it with anything helpful that fills the gap. And so we are present in our communities in hopefully useful ways but in terms of taking the call of Jesus to bear witness to the Spirit at work and to disciple others we instead kind of hope for the best! We hope that one day someone might be interested in faith and church. Now, how we are to go about this sharing and inviting and discipling needs a whole lot more time than I have here. It’s something that we need to think through and discuss and flesh out well because it isn’t a straightforward thing to do, to share our faith, to talk about it, to invite someone into it, let alone committing to apprenticing people in the lifelong way of following Jesus. It needs more conversation for us. But, we can’t ignore our call to be active participants in the commission of Jesus and the way of God in the world.

Mostly I think it’s a tricky space for us because we are more like those early disciples than we think. Here is a small group – there are 11 of them – just the week before there were 12 of them, so they’ve already got off to a bad start! We’ve seen them struggle with Jesus’ teaching and actions. We’ve seen their hesitancy to change. We’ve seen their resistance and ignorance with regard to people who are different from them. And here, right at the end of Matthew, we see them turn up to meet with Jesus both worshipping and doubting. Yes, they are a lot like us. We are fewer in number than we used to be. We struggle with Jesus’ teaching, the scriptures, what we are called to do, with how we are to be the church in today’s world. We too, gather together to meet with Jesus. The text says, “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but they doubted” (verse 17). That is more like us than we even realise! This is why it is so important for us that while we recognise our call to share our faith and teach others in the way of Jesus we do so remembering that Christ’s power and presence are what we rely on. We know the grace of God, the love of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. We are caught up in something much bigger than we can ever understand. And so, with this in mind, we are to be faithful and pay attention to Christ at work in our lives and in the world around us. This is what we are called to trust. That the way of Jesus we attempt to live can truly be good news for us and for our world. That is the confidence Jesus gave to those early disciples, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (verse 20), he said. Without them stepping into that and doing something, we wouldn’t be here! And so, that is all the confidence we need too.

I think Jesus says to us, ‘As you go about your living, show people my way of life, invite them in, teach them to live in it too… and know that as you do this, I am with you, in all my power and presence, now and forever.’

[1] See Mike Breen, Building a discipleship culture.


[3] See above article.