You Already Own the Best Discipleship Manual

If you want to personally train someone else in Christianity, what discipleship curriculum is at the top of your list? I urge you to consider a resource you already own: the Gospel According to Matthew.

Matthew’s overarching objective in his Gospel is to enlist and train followers of King Jesus. From his first to his final statement, Matthew demonstrates that Jesus of Nazareth is God’s chosen king to rule forever on earth so that people from every nation will commit their lives to him.

I sometimes refer to Matthew’s Gospel as “a discipleship manifesto,” an authoritative declaration of what it means to follow Jesus. Bible teachers often limit their understanding of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship to his famous Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5–7 or to his commissioning sermon in chapter 10. And both of those sermons are a crucial parts of his instruction on that topic. But they’re just parts. In truth, the entire Gospel is a discipleship manifesto.

Commentator Craig Keener agrees. Both at the outset and conclusion of his helpful volume on Matthew, Keener points out that this Gospel “functions as a discipling manual, a ‘handbook’ of Jesus’ basic life and teaching” (51). Keener observes that “The summaries of Jesus’ teaching . . . work well as a discipling manual for young believers” (720).

Let’s consider (1) what discipleship involves according to Matthew, (2) how to use Matthew’s Gospel as a “curriculum,” and (3) a few basic strategies for moving forward.

1. What does discipleship involve?

The Gospel According to Matthew ends with a brief outline of what discipling others involves. In Matthew 28:18–20 Jesus tells his followers:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (NIV)

This Gospel’s final word on the lips of Jesus reveals four crucial facets of discipleship.

First, the foundation of discipleship is the conviction that Jesus is king. At bottom, Christianity is a personal conviction regarding facts: that Jesus is the crucified and risen king, given authority by God the Father to rule creation forever (28:18). Those who embrace that conviction must let this king rule every aspect of life.

Second, those who choose to follow Jesus must publicly identify with him. That’s why Jesus commanded that disciples should be baptized (28:19). In baptism a new disciple publicly declares his or her belonging to the Triune God.

Third, Jesus’ disciples commit themselves to a life of teachability—of learning to obey everything that Jesus commanded (28:19). The king’s followers never stop growing in knowledge and application of his teachings.

Fourth, and most obviously, disciples must mature into disciple-makers. In this final word to his disciples, Jesus’ central command is, “Make disciples.” So, mature disciples reproduce themselves.

2. How can I use Matthew as a discipleship curriculum?

Simply put, get together with another person to read and discuss the Gospel of Matthew in manageable sections. Although Matthew uses other structural devices, the most obvious one is Jesus’ five sermons in chapters 5–7, 10, 13, 18, and 24–25. So if you include the blocks of material in each sermon and the blocks of material before, between, and after each sermon, Matthew has eleven basic sections (i.e., chapters 1–4, 5–7, 8–9, 10, 11–12, 13, 14–17, 18, 19–23, 24–25, and 26–28). So using that breakdown, let me suggest what your curriculum might look for the first four of those sections.

First, when you work through Matthew 1–4, emphasize the main idea that Jesus is God come to rescue people from sin—he’s the long-awaited king who fulfills God’s promises to Abraham and David. But, as you can tell, in order to understand that main idea, you’ll have to unpack the nature of the Triune God, the concept of “the Old Testament” and the core promises in it. You’ll also get to discuss the varying reactions to the king (chapter 2), the meaning of baptism and Jesus’ baptism (chapter 3), and how to fight temptation in the righteousness of Jesus who never fell to it (chapter 4).

Second, when you work through Matthew 5–7, you’ll want to emphasize the King’s authority to demand our obedience in areas such as anger, sexual ethics, private prayer, daily trust, financial investment in eternity, and unhypocritical love.

Third, when you work through Matthew 8–9, you’ll want to re-emphasize Jesus’ authority. He has power to save—to heal diseases like leprosy, paralysis, fever, and blindness; to calm storms and command demonic spirits; and to bring dead people to life. You’ll want to point out that, at the very heart of this section, Jesus is displaying his power in order to prove his authority to forgive sin (9:6)—his ability to heal those whose hearts are sick, including people like Matthew himself (9:9–12).

Fourth, when you work through Matthew 10, emphasize the importance of disciples making disciples—calling others to give their allegiance to King Jesus (10:34–39). Yet, as those you train will discover, making disciples is not easy. We must learn not to fear opposition, even animosity, because God values and helps us and because Jesus will acknowledge and reward us (10:26–33).

As you progress through the remaining sections of material in this discipleship manifesto, you’ll unpack why people—especially religious people—despise Jesus (chapters 11–12); how the true kingdom will grow slowly through the proclamation of the gospel message (chapter 13); how to follow King Jesus even though it will involve suffering (chapters 14–17); why humility, accountability, and forgiveness are crucial in church relationships (chapter 18); what supreme devotion to Jesus looks like in marriage, politics, and several other areas of life (chapters 19–23); how to live with readiness for the King’s return (Matthew 24–25); and why it’s so important to keep together the king’s death and resurrection as the disciple’s heartbeat (chapters 26–28).

See, Matthew makes a fairly comprehensive discipleship curriculum.

3. How should I proceed?

A generation ago pastor and professor Robert Coleman wrote The Master Plan of Evangelism in which he taught how to make disciples and, at the same time, exposed ways in which Christians today are quite unlike Jesus in how we go about it. Let me share four of his simple, revolutionary insights.

First, focus on a few individuals. In chapter 1 Coleman shows that Jesus loved the crowds but focused on a select few individuals. He reminds us that if Jesus’ success were measured by the number of converts during his lifetime, Jesus would be a failure. Coleman ends the book saying,

It does not matter how many people we enlist for the cause. . . . Our emphasis must be on quality [not quantity of discipleship]. If we get the right quality . . . the rest will follow; if we do not get it, the rest have nothing worth following. (107)

Second, focus on “quantity time.” In chapter 2 Coleman points out that Jesus’ method was “constant association” with his chosen followers. Coleman says:

When will the church learn this lesson? Preaching to the masses, although necessary, will never suffice in the work of . . . evangelism. Nor can occasional prayer meetings or training classes. . . . Building men and women is not that easy. It requires constant personal attention, much like a father gives to his children. . . . There is simply no substitute for getting with people. (40–41)

Third, focus on example. In chapter 5 Coleman observes that Jesus modeled everything for his followers, including his prayer life, his knowledge of and love for the Bible, his concern for individuals, and his teaching.

Fourth, focus on reproduction. In chapter 8 Coleman reminds us that Jesus’ whole plan to save the world was dependent on his disciples faithfully telling others about him.

The criteria on which a church should measure its success is not how many new names are added to the roll nor how much the budget is increased, but rather how many Christians are actively winning souls and training them to win the multitudes. (95)

So, start with one or two people, spend significant amounts of time together reading and discussing Matthew—enough time to allow them to observe how you live it—and don’t stop getting together until they are making other disciples. Does that simple plan still intimidate you? Then receive this word of encouragement from the King himself. He promises to anyone involved in this disciple-making mission: “Surely I am with you always” (28:20).

* * *

Joe Tyrpak has served as a pastor of Tri-County Bible Church in Madison, Ohio, since 2005. He recently produced a DVD, The Life of David Brainerd: A Documentary, and a companion devotional. He is a contributing author and the layout editor of the Gospel Meditations devotional series. He and his wife, Hannah, have four children.

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