In any discussion on evangelisation and discipleship, someone usually comments, “In our congregation, we are pretty good at sharing our faith but not very effective at discipleship.” My experience in urban mission, particularly in the large city/regions of the francophone world, has convinced me of one thing. If we do not get discipleship right, we probably will have a deficient understanding and practice of evangelisation. Dallas Willard states it very clearly:
The reason for the recent abrupt emergence of the terminology (of spiritual formation) into religious life is, I believe, a growing suspicion or realization that we have not done well with the reality and the need. We have counted on preaching, teaching and knowledge or information to form faith in the hearer, and have counted on faith to form the inner life and outward behaviour of the Christian. But, for whatever reason, this strategy has not turned out well. The result is that we have multitudes of professing Christians who well may be ready to die, but obviously are not ready to live, and can hardly get along with themselves, much less with others.1
In this article, I would like to explore why the renewed interest in discipleship, now sometimes called Christian spirituality, just might be “the doctor’s best medicine” for missiology2 and the Church’s engagement in God’s global mission. We will begin by wrestling with the biblical notions on discipleship and then examine how Matthew’s Gospel can point us forward in evangelisation: that the whole Church seeks to take the whole gospel to the whole world.
Some Biblical Notions
In broaching this subject we need to define certain key notions.
Spirituality is the process of developing and experiencing a deep relationship with God. It also deals with how Christians live their faith in the world. Spirituality cannot be divorced from the struggle for justice and care for the poor and the oppressed. The interest of Christians in the subject is not new, although there has been a renewed awareness of the subject in the past several years.
Curiously, the word spirituality in theological dictionaries is relatively recent, but the meaning of the term should not be separated from previous expressions, such as holiness, godliness, walking with God or discipleship. All of these ideas emphasize a formal commitment to being alive and being very connected with God through a deepening relationship with Jesus Christ. It implies a life of personal obedience to the word of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. We can say that spirituality is our self-transcendent capacity as human beings to participate in God’s creative and redemptive activity.
Being a follower or disciple of Jesus Christ in the New Testament means living fully in the world in union with Jesus Christ and his people and growing in conformity to his person. We could say that it is a grateful and heartfelt yes to God expressed both in act and attitude—the follower of Jesus lives in obedience and imitation of Jesus Christ and walks in the disciplined and maturing pattern of love for God by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.3
Spiritual formation focuses our attention on the dynamics of how the Holy Spirit works in us to conform us to the image of God in Jesus Christ in every area of life. We pursue spiritual formation because of God’s love for us and the consequences of evil in the world since the Fall. It is the Trinitarian work of the Godhead to stimulate followers of Jesus in their individual lives and in the local community of faith to participate in God’s project for human history through the ways and means revealed in scripture. But spiritual formation is also about those spiritual exercises that the follower of Jesus pursues under the guidance of the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Spirit so as to more readily receive God’s transforming grace.
When we place these terms in the same arena as Missio dei (the mission of God), as well we should, embodying the good news takes on a fresh life. Evangelisation is that set of contextual, intentional initiatives of the community of followers of Jesus within the mission of God to demonstrate in word and deed the offer that God gives to everyone to change one’s way of living and follow Jesus in every area of life. In the confines of God’s global mission, it is therefore imperative to do what Jesus taught us to do; as we make disciples, we teach them to do everything he commanded us to do.
As one reads and studies the Gospel of Matthew, one immediately notices many patterns that revolve around the idea of “following Jesus” or discipleship. What is it? What differences are there between authentic and false discipleship? What sorts of experiences are basic to becoming a disciple?4
Matthew seems to have been written in a time of persecution when there was a real effort to introduce either liberty from the law or legalism into the life of the community.5 Such threats would tempt people not to do evangelism. They might be afraid to confess Christ publicly or to receive fellow Christians who were being persecuted into their homes (10:34-42). Matthew focuses on the nature and meaning of discipleship. True disciples are distinguished by the fact that they not only say “Lord, Lord” or do miracles, but by the fact that they obey all Christ has commanded. They obey and make the good news known despite persecution (7:15-23; 25:31-46).
Matthew is also constructed so as to serve the purpose of instruction of Christians, a kind of catechism with a structure that aids memorization within an oral community. While the structure is complex, the major parts of the book alternate between a narrative section (which might have some brief discourses) and a discourse or sermon section. Signaling a transition between sections is the concluding phrase, “When Jesus finished saying…” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1).6
Peter Ellis suggests the book be ordered by a chiastic form, with the turning point in 13:35 where Jesus turns from the false Israel to the true Israel.7 Until that point he spends time with all people. From then on, he concentrates mainly on those who have responded and become serious disciples. Whether Ellis is right or not, the material is easily divided into units somewhat similar to what he suggests, as portrayed in this chart.
This chart is only a brief outline. You will note that the discourses generally sound a particular note in their teaching. Only the Sermon on the Mount varies from this, but it ends with the multitude astonished because Jesus taught as one having authority (with his “I say to you…” set against the understandings of the law and righteousness common in his day). The following narratives tend to pick up the theme and give stories that have a somewhat similar point. For example, the discourse in Chapter 10 stresses conflict and persecution that await the disciples who are sent out to preach and heal. The narrative in Chapters 11-12 is made up largely of stories about opposition or potential opposition: from John the Baptist and his followers; from Chorazin and Bethsaida; from the wise and understanding; and from the scribes and Pharisees.
One other interesting facet of Ellis’ theory is the continuities and contrasts that exist between Matthew’s corresponding parts. In his theory, the first Major Discourse (5-7) is matched with the fifth Major Discourse (23-25). They both are about the same length, both associated with a mountain, and with Jesus taking the seated position of a teacher. The one has beatitudes; the other woes. Both close with a judgmental scene in which the condemned address Jesus as “Lord, Lord.” Similar sorts of parallels and contrasts can be drawn between other sections. The structure is an intentional pedagogical tool for disciples as learners.
Therefore, in his structure and content, Matthew gives us a distinctive theology of the Christian life:
1. His basic theme is discipleship as learners—the sense that one is an apprentice of Jesus.
2. The basic activity of the disciple is “following”: learning the teacher’s viewpoint, adopting the lifestyle and path of the teacher, doing what the teacher commands and suffering the same fate as the teacher.8
3. The basic explanation of discipleship is given throughout Matthew’s Gospel, but especially in the five major discourses.
- The sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7). This sermon gives the style of life, attitudes and behavior that mark the authentic follower. Here is the ethical and spiritual heart of Jesus’ teaching about how we are to live life with a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and scribes. The comparisons for the teaching come from the city world of northern Palestine. To do righteousness is to obey the words and commands of the master teacher, Jesus Christ.
- The mission of the apostles and persecution (Matthew 10). This tells us that disciples have a job to do in the cities and villages of Palestine, bringing the good news of the Kingdom of God and the power of the Spirit in healing and confrontation with the powers of evil. This teaches us some things about the ministry of the true disciple.
- The disciples and the Kingdom of God (Matthew 13). This teaching instructs us in the nature of the Kingdom of God. Normally, we think of a kingdom as a controlling power. Yet the Kingdom of God comes humbly, quietly, in a form that can be rejected. Its followers still suffer in this world. Its coming does not banish all evil or evildoers. Once again, the comparisons for the teaching come from the city world of northern Palestine, especially life in and around Capernaum. Everything depends upon our response to the word of the kingdom given in Jesus Christ. We need to listen to and understand the message of Jesus about the kingdom’s presence and its priorities.
- Brother and sisterhood in the community of disciples (Matthew 18). Jesus explains to his disciples how to manage relationships within the community of the king. What do we do when Christian brothers and sisters do not live by the Sermon on the Mount—what about corruption among the disciples when they fall into serious moral or doctrinal error? What about disciplining other disciples?
- Discipleship and watching in light of the coming judgment (Matthew 23-25). This discourse reminds us that Jesus is coming again. True disciples watch for that coming while remaining faithful in service. They serve the poor and continue to preach the message of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ to all the peoples of their cities. Then, and only then, will this age come to an end and the triumphantly powerful, visible kingdom will come to earth.
The book of Matthew is best read by considering its “bookends,” Matthew 1 and 28:18-20. The Gospel is rooted in the first chapter’s genealogy. We learn through the women mentioned in the text that Jesus is multi-racial. The so-called Great Commission states the theme: those who have been made disciples are now to make more disciples of all peoples in the city. The material prior to the Great Commission shows Jesus making disciples and in various ways gives an exposition of what a true disciple is. The disciple’s work, given in this final passage, is the climax of the Gospel. The emphasis here, as it is throughout the Gospel, falls on doing or observing God’s law given through Jesus as the true teacher, as opposed to simply knowing and talking about it. Jesus is the positive example; the Pharisees and the false disciples are the negative examples.
But there is an interesting twist, which gets clarified in John’s Gospel. In Matthew, Jesus states that he will always be with them. In John, this was to be through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Jesus mandates his disciples to make apprentices of all the ethnic groups of the world and this would be done through the power and presence of God himself in them. Within the scope of God's global mission, discipleship was front and center. It needs to recover its proper place today.
1. Willard, Dallas. 2006. The Great Omission. New York: Harper and Row, 69.
2. Missiology is the exegetical, theological and cultural study about the mission of God in the world and the ensuing mission of the Church. For that reason it is often defined as an inter-disciplinary field of reflection and action. It begins on the exegetical level (Christian faith is a missionary faith rooted in Jesus’ practices, the hope of the rule of God and his justice) and follows with historical, theological and practical reflection and initiatives. It is inter-disciplinary because it takes into account cultural studies, holistic community transformational development theory and practice, a critique of the past, contextualization and strategies that move the people of God in their local situation forward.
3. Michael Wilkins defines a disciple as “…a person who has been called by Jesus to eternal life, has claimed him as Savior and God and has embarked upon the life of following him.” In His Image, 55. Greg Ogden defines discipling as “…an intentional relationship in which we walk alongside other disciples in order to encourage, equip and challenge one another in love to grow toward maturity in Christ. This includes equipping the disciple to teach others as well.” Transforming Discipleship, 129.
4. Several authors draw our attention to this as the key focus of the Gospel of Matthew including: M. Wilkins. 1988. Discipleship in the Ancient World and Matthew’s Gospel. Leiden: Brill; Donaldson, Terrence. 1996. “Guiding Readers–Making Disciples: Discipleship in Matthew’s Narrative Strategy” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. R.N. Longnecker. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 30-49; Bosch, D.J. 1991. Transforming Mission. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 56-83.
5. This idea is further developed by Gundry, Robert H. 1982. Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.
6. An alternative structure includes the repetition in 4:17 and 16:21.
7. Ellis, Peter. 1974. Matthew: His Mind and Message. Collegeville: Liturgical Press.
8. The key discipleship term for Matthew is “follow” (note: 4:20; 9:9; 10:38; 16:24; 19:21; 20:34; 27:55). The crowds also follow him (note: 4:25; 8:1, 10; 12:15; 19:2; 20:29; 21:9).