By Christopher VanDusen
In my last article, we studied the Great Commission contained in Matthew 28:18-20. In that study, we examined what the main mission of every Christian is — to make disciples of Christ, and of His apostles. In this article, we’ll look at some of the best examples of how the New Testament teaches us to do this.
In order to accomplish this, we’ll look at several passages in the Book of Acts, which is a history of the Lord Jesus Christ working through His apostles and the early church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to make disciples. These passages teach us five main essential ways in which Christians are to make disciples:
- Evangelizing People with the Word
- Encouraging Perseverance in the Word
- Instructing and Preaching the Word
- Fellowshipping with the People of the Word
- Fearing the Person of the Word
First, Acts 8:1b, 4 teaches us that the early church evangelized people with the Word:
“And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles . . . Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (ESV)
Notice first of all that “those who were scattered” were everyone in the Jerusalem church “except the apostles”. Thus, the ones who “went about preaching the word” weren’t the apostles, but normal believers. However, when we read that they were “preaching the word”, we shouldn’t think of them as standing on a raised platform and preaching to crowds. The Greek word translated “preaching” is a form of the exact word that we get “evangelism” from — euangellion. It has two parts — eu- and –angellion. The first part means “good”, and the second means “message”. Hence, the word translated “preaching” literally means “announcing good news”. Therefore, when these believers “went about preaching the word”, they were literally “announcing the good news of the word”.
But what is the “word” they were announcing? Well, since the author of Acts — Luke — says that they were announcing it as good news, it must be the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, if you’ll do a study of the New Testament’s use of the phrase “the word”, you’ll find that this “word” will be called such things as “the word of Christ”, “the word of the gospel”, “the word of God’s grace”, and will be described as saving people and providing the blessings of salvation to them. Hence, the “word” that the Jerusalem saints were sharing must be the word that Paul defines in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 as the message that is to be received, stood in, and held fast to, and says that Christ died for our sins, rose from the dead, and appeared to the apostles. Elsewhere, it’s added that this word includes God’s command that everyone change their minds and trust in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, as their divine Lord, crucified Savior, and risen Prophet, Priest, and King, as the only grounds of His forgiveness of their sins. Thus, the word that the Jerusalem saints “went about preaching” was the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The last thing I’d call your attention to is that these Christians went about preaching the gospel. That is, they didn’t only have set places and times to preach the gospel, but as they were living their everyday lives, they “went about preaching the gospel”. In other words, they shared the good news of the Word while on the run, and did it as they were going from place to place.
Another way in which the early church made disciples was by encouraging perseverance in the Word for those who had become disciples. The first passage we’ll look at is Acts 11:19-24, which says,
“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.” (ESV)
First, notice again that the way the discipleship process began was by believers “preaching the Lord Jesus”. The word “preaching” is the same one used in the last passage. And notice the result: “. . . the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord”. As a side note, we must always remember that the only reason anyone believes in the Lord Jesus and turns to Him through our evangelism is because “the hand of the Lord” is with us. Nevertheless, we see first of all that disciples have been made in Antioch.
Secondly, notice what Barnabas did to these new converts when he came to them:
“. . . he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose . . .”
The word “exhorted” comes from a Greek word that literally means “to call alongside in order to help”, and can also be translated “encouraged”. What Barnabas was doing was calling the new believers to come alongside him, so he could help them — in other words, he was encouraging them with his words. And what was he encouraging and urging them to do? “To remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose”.
This teaches us that it’s not only the Christian’s duty to share the gospel with people, but, if they come to believe it and to be baptized because of it, Christians must encourage them to remain faithful to the Lord. New disciples can’t just be let alone, but must be encouraged to continue to follow Christ.
Lastly, observe what immediately followed Barnabas’s encouragement of the new Christians:
“And a great many people were added to the Lord.”
A second passage in Acts that teaches this duty of evangelistic discipleship is Acts 13:43, in which Luke is describing what happened after Paul preached the gospel to people in a synagogue:
“And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God.” (ESV)
Here, Paul’s evangelism leads to many people following him and Barnabas. This doesn’t just mean that they physically followed them, but that they began to be friends with them, and to seek to learn how to follow Christ. This is clear when we read that Paul and Barnabas “urged them to continue in the grace of God”. If they were to continue in God’s grace, or living by God’s undeserved favor, then they had at least appeared to have believed the gospel of God’s grace. Again, note that Paul and Barnabas encouraged these professing believers to continue to follow Christ because of God’s grace.
One more passage in Acts that teaches this ministry is Acts 14:21-22, where it is said of Paul and Barnabas,
“When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (ESV)
Once again, this passage teaches that the apostles encouraged new disciples to “continue in the faith”, and even warned them that they would only enter God’s heavenly kingdom by going through many troubles.
A third way in which the early church in Acts made disciples was by instructing and preaching the Word. One passage that teaches this is Acts 15:30-35, where it’s said of Paul, Barnabas, and two representatives of the Jerusalem church,
“So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.” (ESV)
First, we must see that the context of this passage is the church in Antioch. Judas and Silas were sent with Paul and Barnabas to deliver a letter from the apostles and pastors in Jerusalem. They read this letter to the church, and then preached to them. Then, Judas and Silas left, leaving Paul and Barnabas to teach and preach God’s Word with “many others”. Although there must be some reference here to sharing the gospel with unbelievers, the main idea is that people taught and preached God’s Word to the church there.
The word “teaching” refers to in-depth explanation and application of God’s Word, whereas “preaching” refers to the simple proclamation of God’s Word. Both of these are essential in making disciples, as Paul and Barnabas knew when they served the inhabitants of Antioch.
A second passage that teaches the teaching and preaching of God’s Word is Acts 16:4-5, where Luke again talks about Paul and a ministry partner named Timothy in connection with the letter from Jerusalem:
“As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.” (ESV)
This time, God’s Word isn’t mentioned explicitly, but, since “the decisions” were from apostles, who were authoritative revelation-giving representatives of Jesus, it’s fair to say that at least some of what they wrote was God’s Word, since it possessed the authority that Jesus had given them. These decisions were delivered by Paul and Timothy, and was probably accompanied by further teaching from them. And what was the result? The churches that heard this teaching “were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily”. First, they became more like Christ, and secondly, the change in their lives led to more people becoming disciples of Christ.
The fourth way in which the early church made disciples was by fellowshipping together as people of the Word. My first example of this is Acts 2:42-47, where Luke gives an account of the first converts to Christ after the church began:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (ESV)
First, observe that they were devoting themselves to “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”. The apostles’ teaching, again, was God’s Word that was given to them by the Holy Spirit from the Lord Jesus. Hence, these were people of the Word. Secondly, they devoted themselves to “the fellowship”. The Greek word translated “fellowship” is koinonia, and literally means “common”. It could be translated “commonness”, “sharing”, or “partnership”. Hence, these believers devoted themselves to sharing their lives with one another, and to partnering with one another to follow the apostles’ teaching, to break bread together, and to pray together.
Secondly, notice the result of this devotion — they “were together and had all things in common”. This led them to provide for the needy among them.
Finally, note that they were in the temple “day by day”, which was where they had worship meetings, and broke bread in one another’s homes. And what was the result?
“And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
As a result of their fellowship together in following apostolic teaching, breaking bread, praying together, caring for one another, and worshiping together, they were used by the Lord to make disciples as they shared the gospel and showed what it means to live in light of the gospel. In other words, both their preaching and lifestyle served as means that the Lord used to save people, and to add them to their number.
One last passage that teaches this discipleship tool of fellowshipping is Acts 5:11-14, which again speaks of the church in Jerusalem:
“And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard these things.
Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of men and women . . .” (ESV)
First, we must again catch that the context of this passage is the church, and not just the apostles. The same church that was meeting in the temple in Acts 2 is the “all” who are said to be “together in Solomon’s Portico”, which was a porch on the temple.
Second, we again observe that this church was “together”, or were fellowshipping together. And what was the reaction of the unbelievers in the city to their fellowship? They “held them in high esteem”.
Finally, Luke again adds that the result of this reputation that the church had for the holiness of its fellowship was that “more than ever believers were added to the Lord”. Hence, their testimony and witness to the truth of the gospel contributed to the making of more disciples.
The final main way in which the early church in Acts made disciples was by fearing the Person of the Word. Acts 9:31 describes this:
” . . . the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” (ESV)
The churches in these three regions were “being built up”, or becoming more Christlike. But why were they being built up? Because they were “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit”. The word “walking” simply means living everyday life, so these churches were living “in”, or “by”, “the fear of the Lord”. What is the fear of the Lord? It doesn’t mean that these believers were afraid of the Lord, since they knew that He loved them, and would never do anything bad to them. Rather, the word “fear” means to “revere with awe”. That is, these churches were living everyday life out of reverence for the Lord Jesus Christ as their God, Lord, Savior, and Messiah.
Also, as is the case with every believer, their fear of the Lord was accompanied by walking “in the comfort of the Holy Spirit”. The word “comfort” is another word that can be used to translate that which we saw translated as “exhorted” earlier. It literally means “to call alongside to help”. Thus, these churches were living their lives by the help and encouragement of the Holy Spirit, which always accompanies fearing the Lord.
Lastly, what was the result of the churches’ fear of the Lord and comfort of the Spirit? The church in the regions mentioned “multiplied”. In other words, they made more disciples as a result of fearing the Lord and being encouraged by the Holy Spirit.
So, are you sharing the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ as you go about your daily life?
Are you encouraging your brethren in Christ to persevere in following Christ, and to become more like Him?
Are you teaching and sharing God’s Word with others as the need arises?
Are you devoting yourself to fellowshipping with your brethren in Bible study, the breaking of bread, and group prayer?
Are you living out of reverence for our Lord and being encouraged by the Holy Spirit?
If you aren’t doing any of these things at all, then please make sure that you understand and believe this good news:
God, our Creator, sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to become a man by a virgin birth, Jesus of Nazareth, to live a perfect life, and to willingly let Himself be nailed and hung on a cross, where God punished Him for our crimes against Him. Then, He raised Him from the dead, appearing to hundreds of people, and took Him into heaven as our rightful King. He’s now commanding everyone to change their minds and to trust in Him, His death for our sins, and resurrection as the only grounds of God’s forgiveness of our sins because He’s going to send Him soon to judge everyone perfectly, and to punish His enemies for eternity with everlasting torment. Please make sure that your mind has changed about the Lord Jesus Christ, God, and yourself, and that you’re only depending on the Lord’s death and resurrection as your only hope and way of salvation. If you’re doing this, then He commands all of His people to be immersed in water as a public profession of faith in Him by one of His people.
Next week, if the Lord wills, we’ll study how discipleship fits into the church.
All Scripture quotations are taken from:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.