The closing of Matthew’s gospel is not just a tidy end to his book; these last few verses are the marching orders for the church:
The eleven disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but some doubted. Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:16-20).
Here is one of those passages that, if we ever wonder what God’s will is for our lives, we can come back to again and again, for here is the answer. What does God want me to do? He wants me to go and make disciples. Just like He said.
And what does God want the church to do? Make disciples. Just like He said.
It’s no wonder, then, that the last 2,000 years have been filled with various philosophies, analyses, systems, and methodologies surrounding that task. There has already been much proverbial ink spilled on the subject of discipleship – some of it by me – and yet there will still be more. And there should be, because this is the work God has given us to do. Make disciples.
It’s into the tangle of already present analogies, systems, and methodologies that I toss one more word that will help us understand not only the nature, but also the process of Jesus’ great commission to us:
The word has a sort of mystical quality, doesn’t it? But, at least in this context, there’s nothing really mystical about it at all. To see that, let’s return to the definition of the root word:
To illuminate is to make visible or bright by shining light on; help clarify or explain.
And in a sense, this is what we are really doing when we disciple someone else. We are bringing light to and clarifying or explaining the work God is already doing in that person. To take it a step further and to see why this word fits so well, we need to embrace a few principles:
Principle 1: God is at work in His children all the time.
Romans 8:28 reminds us that in all things God is working for the good of those who love Him. We tend to think of the “work” in this verse as circumstantial – that is, God is engineering the circumstances around us – even the painful ones – for our good, making us more like Jesus. But God is not only at work around us; He is at work in us. Which brings us to principle 2…
Principle 2: We are often blind to God’s slow but steady work.
Though God is at work within us, we are often unaware of it because it is incremental. It’s slow. But it’s steady. But because of its slowness, we often can’t see it ourselves; from our perspective, we are struggling with the same things and can seem to be stuck in the mud in our spiritual progress.
Principle 3: We need others to point out that work in us.
Because we are blind to God’s work in us, we need others to step in and point out what we can’t see for ourselves. We need people with an outside perspective to specifically and regularly point out what they see God doing in our lives to make us more like Jesus. When that happens, our resolve, faith, and perseverance are fueled because we come to see that progress is indeed being made.
This is the work of illumination. This is the work of discipleship. It’s not that we are causing people to grow in Christ; how could we? We can’t even manufacture that growth in ourselves, much less someone else. What we can do, however, is bear witness of the work of God in someone else’s life.
When we see discipleship like this, it starts to demystify the process. Further, it helps us see that anyone – everyone – can be a disciple-maker. We can all help each other see and embrace the work of God in and through us as we more together toward Christlikeness. Discipleship is about illumination. And any of us can help bring the light.