And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 all that I have commanded you.
The book of Acts then goes on to show how God used these men and others to do just that - be His witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. That is how the work of the Great Commission began.
But I think it's important to understand that this was just the beginning of the Great Commission and the work of discipling all nations. This whole thing of 11 guys going out into the world as ambassadors for Christ was a unique phenomenon. Certainly God is still calling missionaries (yes, God calls missionaries - Acts 13:2-3) to be His ambassadors in actively going into the remote parts of the world in order to make entire cultures and nations His disciples. Yet it seems to me that from Scripture, overt active evangelizing, while important, is not the main avenue of discipling the nations. It seems rather that the normal course in which God will continue to expand His Great Commission work is first and foremost in the home.
What I'm saying is that discipleship starts in the home, continues in the church, expands into the community, and from there goes out into all nations. Here is why I say that.
Discipleship Starts In the Home
The book of Deuteronomy gives us a great outline of how discipleship is first and foremost done at home. That might seem evident enough. But I think even more it's also an outline of how discipleship expands into the community:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
The first thing about discipleship is not to teach your children. The cornerstone of discipleship is first for you yourself to love the Lord with all your being (something we're able to do progressively better this side of glory through the work of the Holy Spirit - Mt. 22:38-40; 1 Jn. 4:10, 19; Eph. 6:24). It is first for you yourself to know His word, for His word to be on your heart first.
Then, training up your household follows. This kind of discipleship is not reduced to an hour or two on Sunday (or whichever day you go to church). As Deuteronomy goes on to say, discipling your children is to be done all throughout the day - every day.
And please don't think this is just an "Old Testament" command. In the New Testament Paul reminds fathers of their parental responsibilities as believers: "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4). What else would Paul mean by bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord?
I think it's clear from the context what Paul had in mind here - Deuteronomy. He had just quoted to the children the fifth commandment (Deut. 5:16; Eph. 6:1-3), and from there proceeded to remind the fathers of their responsibility in raising those very same children (Deut. 6:4-9; Eph. 6:4). Discipleship starts at home.
One important aspect of this is to see how it is done. As said previously, we're not called to disciple our own households just one day a week - but all throughout the day, every day. Also, we're not called to adhere to the worldly standards of separating the secular from the sacred.
In other words, we're not called to disciple our children in a way that we teach them about God and Jesus for "religious" matters but that's as far as their jurisdiction lies. No. Rather we are to teach them that Jesus Christ is Lord over all of life. Notice that the command in Deuteronomy says to bind God's word (metaphorically I believe) on the hands and have it as frontlets between your eyes (in some translations, translated as "forehead").
This means that everything we do ("as a sign on your hand") and everything we think ("as a symbol on your forehead") is to be interpreted through the Word of God. This is everything - not just the "religious" things - but everything we do and think is to be done through the lens of God's Word and to His glory (Col. 3:17).
Regardless of your eschatological view, remember that it is the anti-Christ beast who wants his authority to be marked on the hands and forehead of all people (Rev. 13:16-17; cf. Rev. 20:4 - it is those who do not receive the mark of the beast that reign with Christ). But think again to the Great Commission: all authority - in heaven and on earth - has been given not to the beast but to Jesus Christ (Mt. 18:18). He and His church will have ultimate victory (Mt. 16:18; cf. Eph. 3:20-21).
But again, this knowledge and understanding of interpreting everything we do and see and think through the lens of God's Word and under His authority, this all starts at the home. That is why it also says God's Word shall be written on the doorposts of your house (Deut. 6:9). In this way, everyone going in and out of the house knows that the entire household lives under the authority of the Lord and for His glory.
But it doesn't stop there...
Discipleship Continues In the Church
One often overlooked aspect of the church is internal discipleship and mutual edification. We often think that it's the pastor who is to be doing the overt evangelizing and bringing others into the church. And while it is true that pastors are to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5), their primary role is to shepherd the sheep that are already in the flock (1 Pet. 5:1-15) through teaching, exhorting, and admonishing through the Word of God (1 Tim. 4:11, 13; 2 Tim. 4:1-2). Again, their primary role is discipling the existing flock of believers (2 Tim. 2:1-2).
And while that is their primary role, do not think that they are the only ones who are to be engaged in discipleship (teaching, exhorting, admonishing fellow Christians through the Word of God). Consider if you will the many "one another" passages in Scripture:
Rom. 12:10, 14:19, 15:1-7; 1 Cor. 1:10, 10:24, 12:14, 20, 26-27; Gal. 5:25-6:2, 10;
Eph. 2:22, 4:1-3, 29, 32, 5:18-21; Phil. 1:27-2:4; Col. 1:9-12, 3:12-17;
1 Thess. 3:11-13, 4:9-12, 5:12-14; 2 Thess. 1:3, 2:16-17, 3:13;
Jas. 5:16; 1 Pet. 1:22-25, 4:8-11; 1 Jn. 3:11, 16, 18, 4:7, 11-12
While these are not all forms of "speaking gifts" (see 1 Pet. 4:10, 11), they are all ways in which the body of believers is built up in love (Eph. 4:15-16) through discipleship. And that is truly how the church continues to grow and then expand into the community - which brings us to the next point...
Discipleship Expands Into the Community
One clear example we have of this in Scripture is from the book of Colossians. Epaphras, a disciple of Paul, was one of the founders of the church in Colossae (Col. 1:7). While Paul had never visited Colossae (Col. 2:1), Epaphras was a native (Col. 4:12). As a disciple within the body of Christ, he began discipling others from the community into the church of God.
From one disciple, gifted with a speaking gift, came more and more disciples from the community into the church. And he certainly may have had help. We know there was at that time at least another believer who was "famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel" (2 Cor. 8:18). And truly those with serving gifts could have been a great support to Epaphras in his evangelizing and discipling ministry.
But still more, we know this is the end game for individual communities because that is part of the Great Commission - that entire communities, that entire nations become disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ!
It is here that we should remember that part of the discipling work in the communities is to truly expose the works of darkness for what they are - wickedness. The church is not to sit back and let the world decide for itself what is right and wrong. Rather the church is to proclaim boldly against the evil in its day (Eph. 5:6, 8, 11) and call all people everywhere (Acts 17:30-31) to repentance from their wickedness into a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Again the book of Acts provides us with an example of what this looks like when done in the power of the Spirit. While Paul was in Ephesus exposing the works of darkness (Eph. 5:11), there was a great many who came to a knowledge of the truth.
So strong though was the discipleship in this ministry that the entire community was changed. They changed not only their view of God, but in light of that their personal values, their economic habits, indeed every aspect of their lives.
Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and fount it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.
So great was this transformation of the community that a riot started because of the perceived loss of income from those whose craft was making idols (Acts 19:23-27). The leader of the riot was truly nervous because "this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods" (Acts 19:26). It is no wonder that people viewed Paul and his companions as those who have "turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6).
You see, the Great Commission really is to turn entire cultures, entire communities, entire nations into disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. And isn't that the outline we have in Deuteronomy? "You shall write them [the commandments of God] on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deut. 6:9).
Just as it would be evident in a believing household that the entire household lives under the authority of the Lord and to His glory, so the entire community that has His Word on their city gates will be saying to all who go in and out of the city that "this city is under the authority of the Lord, and we seek to glorify Him above all."
Some might think this is unattainable. Transforming entire cities and nations to becoming disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ? But again, regardless of your eschatological views as to whether that can happen, the Great Commission does call us to that.
But regarding whether it will happen, I do encourage all of us to pay closer attention to one more thing: the book ends of the Great Commission. How and why are we to make entire nations the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Well, because He has told us that "all authority in heaven and on earth" has been given to Him (Mt. 18:18) and that He is truly with us, even to the very end of the age (Mt. 18:20). Furthermore, has He not guaranteed the church victory?
Remember Jesus promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His church (Mt. 16:18). We often think of the gates of hell as somehow moving toward us, and that in an act of defense we will not be overcome. But you see, the gates are the stronghold of a city. It is the gates of hell that are on the defensive, and the church - by the authority and power of Jesus Christ - is on the spiritual offensive. How can we then not expect victory for the church of Jesus Christ? He is the ultimate victor, and He has promised to guide His church to victory.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Discipleship starts in the home. It starts with yourself - you yourself most know the Lord. But then you must disciple your household in the Lord. Discipleship continues in the church and expands in the communities. Ultimately, as the church does these things, one family at a time entire nations will become the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us thank Him that He uses such unworthy vessels as ourselves for so noble a task and pray that He continues to do so.
And before we go out into the world - let us take the Biblical model of starting first in our own homes - to His glory forever and ever!