Christ’s Method of Discipleship: Few to the Many

by David Tong

The Lord commands all believers to make disciples (Matt 28:19-20). But how are we to make disciples? What methods do we employ? What philosophies should guide our efforts?

Thankfully, the Lord does not leave us to our own strength and wisdom to accomplish this task. He has given us to us his Holy Spirit, his Word, spiritual gifts, and the church to enable us to accomplish this mission. He gives his Spirit to convict our hearts, illumine our minds, and inform our conscience so that we might know him and obey his commandments (1 Cor 2:10-14). He gives his Word, so that we can examine and imitate his method of making disciples (1 Cor 11:1-2). He gives us the gifts of teachers and pastors who can teach his statutes, set forth an example to follow, and oversee the body in order to facilitate disciple making. He also gives us the local body that we may individually attach ourselves to for accountability, wisdom, and encouragement (Eph 4:11-16). Until he returns, his faithfulness endures to the very end (Matt 28:20). Therefore, let us have an excellent philosophy of discipleship for the furtherance of the gospel and the shepherding of the church.

The goal of this article is to provide a theological framework and a practical methodology for making disciples by examining Christ’s method and applying it in the context of the church today. Specifically, the priority of establishing and building Christ-centered relationships to facilitate biblical instruction and training in righteous living for the edification of the body and evangelism of the lost.

Few to the Many
A biblical philosophy of discipleship begins with understanding principles from Christ’s method. If we are indeed followers of Christ, we must learn from the master because he is “the perfect example and our perfect teacher.”[2] We must examine and adopt his ambition, his philosophy of selection, and his method of instruction. His ambition and purpose ought to shape, guard, and correct our ministries. Who Christ selected informs us on who makes disciples and who can be his disciples. His training method implies a standard for training others in righteous living and disciple making. We may begin to apply those principles in the church and daily living by observing and learning from his methods.

Christ’s Ambition
What motivated Jesus’ ministry? One aspect of his ministry was to establish the New Covenant by which sinners, separated from God, might be rejoined to him in fellowship for eternity (Jer 31:31; Heb 9:15). Since the fall, the God has set in motion his redemptive plan that he might once again dwell with his people, exclusively united to his bride (Gen 3:15; Eph 2:22; 5:23; Rom 6:5).

Jesus prayed that his chosen people would know him and the Father (John 13:8; 17:3, 20-21). His desire was fellowship, love, and union between the saints and himself (John 13:35). Mark Dever writes, “What God wants most of all is for all of you to love him—all your ambitions and motives, your desires and hopes, your thinking and reasoning, your strength and energy, all of this informed and purified and disciplined by his Word.”[3] Jesus’ death remedies the separation between God and his people and his resurrection provides complete union with God (Heb 9:14; 1 Cor 15:14).

However, his death and resurrection was only one dimension of his ministry. Christ was not idly waiting for the day he would be crucified to justify sinners. He was proclaiming the kingdom of God to the multitudes and training his disciples for the day he would leave them and ascend into heaven.

Jesus knew he had limited time on earth (Matt 26:11). In his three-year ministry, he was deliberately training his disciples how to preach the Kingdom of God, minister to people, and teach them his ways (Luke 4:18, 43; 5:10). Cliff McManis remarks, “In examining the the four Gospels, it is apparent that Jesus spent nearly twenty percent of his teaching time with large groups.”[4] As for the remaining percentage, Jesus spent most of his time training his chosen twelve to be like him (Luke 6:40). Throughout his ministry, Jesus spoke to his disciples in such a way that hinted at their future ministry (Matt 4:19; 16:18; Mark 13:5-8; 14:9; John 13:15; 14:11-12). He was most clear in his charge to Peter to “feed his sheep,” and in the Great Commission to the Apostles at the end of his earthly ministry (John 21:15-19, Matt 28:18-20).

Christ had ambition to make disciples who would then make disciples. That same ambition extends to all believers as well (Heb 2:11; Acts 8:4; Rom 9:3).

By the time of his ascension, Jesus had fully trained his chosen disciples so that they might in turn train other disciples. Christ had ambition to make disciples who would then make disciples. That same ambition extends to all believers as well (Heb 2:11; Acts 8:4; Rom 9:3). Our own ambitions for discipleship must be informed and aligned with Christ’s ambition to be united to his people in love and to teach others that they also may believe.

How Christ Selected His Disciples
Christ’s three-year ministry affected the lives of thousands of people. However, Christ spent the most time with a select few. When Christ began his ministry, he selected twelve men to follow him. He called them from their occupations and their families, to observe and learn from himself what it meant to be seeking the kingdom of heaven (Matt 4:12-23). It is important to notice who Christ chose to be his first learners.

His disciples were not of high social status, or particularly well educated, nor were they from esteemed wealth. They were everyday, marketplace men. Jesus knew that after his death and resurrection it would be these simple fishermen who would carry the good news of forgiveness and salvation to the ends of the earth, even to rulers and magistrates (Acts 1:8).

They were not immediately role models and examples to imitate at first. In fact, Jesus on several occasions rebuked them for their small faith, their impatience, and their self-glorifying desires (Matt 8:26, Luke 9:54-55, Mark 10:35-45). They often focused on temporal things, were easily discouraged, and had misguided priorities. But the most important characteristic of these men was that they faithfully followed Christ (John 6:68). After every correction they received and every rebuke heard, they showed they were teachable and did not cease to follow Christ.[5]

Jesus fashioned prideful men into humble servants, weak-hearted fisherman to courageous apostles, timid learners to faithful teachers. Christ focused on these men to impart to them a perspective of eternity, a love for people, and zeal for God’s glory. When their training was complete and Christ had finished his work on the cross, he encouraged them, exhorted them, and left them; charging them to carry on the work of disciple making. And so they did. We know from Scripture that they found great success not only among the Jews and Samaritans but also the nations of the world. Indeed, their message eventually reached us, 2000 years later on the other side of the world (Acts 2:47; 11:1; 38:28-31). Christ chose simple fishermen and transformed them into mighty fishers of men that they would teach others to obey all his commandments and continue to make disciples.

Christ’s Method of Making Disciples
Having examined Christ’s ambition and his selection, we now consider his method. How exactly did Jesus transform these fishermen into fishers of men? If we are to also make disciples of Jesus, his example will be the model we must imitate if we are to find success. Examination of the gospel accounts reveals that Christ trained these men by being with them in a deep and personal relationship. He trained them on-the-job through instruction, demonstration, and delegation. Jesus’ teachings and his interactions were not just object lessons that they would remember in the days of their commission—they were to also reflect who he was and what he wanted them to become.[6] Jesus was concerned to see his disciples grow into godly character, care for others, and competency in service and gifting.

Christ’s Instruction by Relationship
Christ lived with his disciples and, in his relationship with them, demonstrated his own way of life (Mark 3:13-15). Jay Adams remarks, “Such teaching is full; it is rounded, balanced and complete… [They] would learn not only what He taught by word of mouth but much more.”[7] Christ was able to cultivate an intentional life-changing relationship with them by which they would learn who he was and how they might imitate him.[8]

By being with them, Jesus taught them his example, and the disciples were able to witness his daily practices of early morning prayer, relentless work ethic, masterful apologetics, dynamic teaching, and his shepherd’s heart (Matt 7:28, 9:36; 12:3; Mark 1:35; John 4:32). Perhaps his most famous teaching was when he demonstrated to them his servant’s heart by washing their feet (John 13:5). The shock and awe of seeing their master, the one who calmed the waves, fed the five thousand, raised the dead, cast out demons, destroyed the arguments of the Pharisees, stooped low to serve his students.

It was through his relationship with them, that they truly learned Christ. Coleman observes, “All Jesus did to teach these men was to draw them close to himself. He was his own school and curriculum.”[9] Jesus’ very life was his method.[10] It is no wonder that after being sent by Christ, the apostles would go preach to the multitudes, heal the sick, minister to the poor, preach forgiveness of sins, build relationships, and disciple others just as their master did (Acts 2:38; 3:6; 6:2; 8:40).

Christ’s Instruction in Word
A major portion of Christ’s ministry was oratory teaching to the multitudes. He was “sent for this very purpose” (Luke 4:43). His teaching brought light and hope into the darkness (Matt 4:17, 23; 5:2). When he taught, the crowds came and were astonished by his authority but, more importantly, they learned God’s truth (Matt 7:28; Luke 5:1). Likewise, his twelve disciples learned from his teaching. One may wonder how often the disciples heard Christ teach. He was always teaching! Jesus explained his parables and interpreted events to his disciples throughout his ministry, that they might understand the fuller meaning of who he is and the nature of the kingdom of God (Matt 13:11, 16; Mark 8:31; 9:10-13; 10:24).

As the disciples continued to listen to Jesus and watch him work, they began to recognize that Jesus had the words of life (John 6:68). Then, before ascending and sending his disciples into the world, Christ opened the minds of the disciples to understand the Scriptures so that the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed to all the nations to its fullest effect (Luke 24:45). When they received the Holy Spirit, they were able to accurately recall and understand everything that Jesus taught them (Luke 12:16). It would be these same words, commands, and teaching that the apostles would teach others.  

Christ’s Instruction by Delegation
Jesus did not stop at verbally teaching his disciples who he was. He also delegated tasks to them that they might develop skills to do the work he was doing. Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (Luke 6:40). Jesus’ desire was for his disciples to be like him.[11] Jesus often delegated small tasks to test them and create opportunities to teach them (John 6:6). Over time these responsibilities would grow and eventually culminate into their office of apostleship. They would help him acquire food, organize people, arrange accommodations, travel ahead of him, baptize people, (Matt 14:16, 22; 26:17-18; John 4:2; 6:10). Jesus also sent them out on preaching tours, giving them authority to cast out demons and heal just as he was doing throughout Israel (Matt 10:1-15; Luke 9:1-2). They would report back to him all that they did (Luke 9:10). They were learning his ways.

They proved that those who are faithful with little will be faithful with much (Luke 16:10). Even when they failed, Christ used those moments as teaching opportunities. When the disciples failed to cast out a demon, Jesus showed them that, “this one only comes out with prayer and fasting” (Matt 17:21). Coleman writes, “The point Jesus made in all these instructions was that the mission of his disciples was not different in principle or method from his own.”[12] The on-the-job training that Jesus employed was effective. They would go on to continue to make disciples of Jesus and establish the church among the nations.

Jesus chose a few men, taught them, trained them, and before ascending to heaven, he commissioned them to teach. Their life was marked by this mission, and it is through their labor that Jesus’ name has spread to the nations and in our very cities today. Through the disciples’ preaching of the gospel, those who crucified Christ, those who were deceived by sorcery, and servants of foreign nations all became disciples of the Lord (Acts 2:36-37; 8:25; 8:35-38).

We became disciples in the same way because of the message preached to us. Therefore, we must go and do the same, preaching the good news to everyone we encounter that they may submit themselves to the authority and teaching of God (Rom 10:13-16). We must continue the work of establishing and building Christ-centered relationships and training others in righteous living and the work of the ministry. We inherit the same commission given to the Apostles and look forward to the day promised where people of all nations and tongues would confess that Jesus is Lord (Rev 7:9).

[1] Cliff McManis, Christian Living Beyond Belief, The Woodlands (Kress Christian Publications, 2006), 87.

[2] Dr. Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism, Grand Rapids (Revell, 1993), 17.

[3] Mark Dever, Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus, Wheaton (Crossway, 2016), 16.

[4] McManis, Christian Living, 90.

[5] Coleman, The Master Plan , 23.

[6] Coleman, The Master Plan, 77.

[7] Jay Adams, Shepherding God’s Flock, Grand Rapids: (Zondervan, 1975), 407.

[8] McManis, Christian Living, 95.

[9] Coleman, The Master Plan, 37-38.

[10] Coleman, The Master Plan, 75.

[11] Coleman, The Master Plan, 79.

[12] Coleman, The Master Plan, 85.

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