Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him (Matthew 5:1).
Matthew is an orderly writer, so it is important to note carefully how he begins his account of Jesus’ ministry. He tells us that after John the Baptizer has been arrested, Jesus begins to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17). Jesus then called the fishermen Simon and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee, saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matt 4:18–22). After this, Matthew records, Jesus went all over Galilee, “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matt 4:23), drawing great crowds (Matt 4:24–25). At that point, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down [the usual posture of a teacher], his disciples came to him” (Matt 5:1).
This is the first mention of “disciples” in the Gospel. So who are they?
Adherent to Jesus’ Kingdom
First, discipleship entails adherence to Jesus—the Jesus who announced that God’s kingdom is at hand.
Jesus’ general proclamation (Matt 4:17) is the context for his call of individuals (Matt 4:18–19). The disciples are seen as those who are not simply drawn to a man, but gripped by the truth of what he is saying. The reality of God’s kingdom drawing near precedes the phenomenon of being Jesus’ disciples. Any use of the “Great Commission” as a basis for world mission must remember this, for the nearness of God’s kingdom requires “repentance,” a radical reorientation of outlook and life (Matt 4:17). Being a disciple of Jesus means, fundamentally, allowing that reorientation to take place.
Responders to Jesus’ Call
Second, disciples are implicitly defined here as those who respond to the call of Jesus to be with him, whatever cost is involved, and share in his work.
The way in which Simon and Andrew immediately leave their trade, their father, and their livelihood (no doubt causing consternation among their family) pictures the complete commitment Jesus calls for. Being a disciple of Jesus is in some ways unique when compared to the idea of “discipleship” with which people may have been familiar. Jesus’ disciples are not simply apprenticed to a master to learn a trade, nor simply pupils of a teacher learning a philosophy of wisdom. They are summoned to radical personal commitment to him. Moreover, unlike the disciples of the rabbis who normally chose their teacher, Jesus seems often to have taken the initiative in inviting people to become disciples (in Matthew, see 4:18–22; 9:9; 11:28–30). Jesus’ action underlines that the community of disciples is not something that arises in a merely haphazard way; it is Jesus’ deliberate intention to form it. Since he is not an authorized teacher, amassing a group of disciples requires outgoing initiative. Of course, people can also join the group on their own initiative (Matt 8:19).
Listeners to Jesus’ Teaching
Third, this opening series of scenes in Matthew shows us that a disciple can be defined as one who listens to Jesus.
It is the disciples to whom the first great collection of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, known as the Sermon on the Mount, is addressed (Matt 5:1). The second, fourth, and fifth collections of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew are also addressed to disciples (Matt 10:1–5; 18:1; 24:1). Additionally, the third collection, Matthew 13:1–53, has private teaching to the disciples inserted within addresses to “crowds.” Matthew thus presents the disciples as those who are learning from Jesus’ teaching.
They must go on attending to learning from Jesus, as the voice from the cloud when Jesus is transfigured makes plain to the innermost group of three: “This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matt 17:5). Matthew presents Jesus as the one with unique authority to reveal God’s will (Matt 28:18; see also 7:29).
So discipleship means, quite simply, learning from Jesus to do the will of God. Matthew has gathered much of the core teaching of Jesus into thematic blocks that will help the new disciples, those “made” by the original ones, to go on learning from Jesus when he is no longer visible.
This three-sided definition of discipleship—adherence to Jesus as he proclaims and embodies God’s kingdom, responding to his call to be with him and share in his work, listening to and learning from him—is visualized as we follow the disciples’ story through Matthew.
This post is adapted from “Discipleship as Integral Component of World Mission Strategy” by Stephen I. Wright in World Mission: Theology, Strategy, and Current Issues edited by Scott N. Callaham and Will Brooks (Lexham Press, 2019).