Paul’s Approach to the Great Commission

Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (January-March 1995): 33-41

Paul’s Approach to the Great Commission in Acts 14:21-23
David F. Detwiler

In anticipation of the Cross, Jesus declared to His Father, ’I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do’ (John 17:4).On reaching the end of their days, in this world, followers of Christ should be able to say the same words, knowing that they have done their part in completing the work God has given them to do, namely, to ’make disciples of all nations’ (Matt. 28:19).

But what is involved in fulfilling this task? How are believers to carry out this ’Great Commission’ of the Lord Jesus Christ? This article explores the possibility that Acts 14:21-23 serves as an outline of--and brief commentary on--the discipleship process Jesus has called His followers to pursue in their own lives and to encourage in the lives of others.

The passage briefly describes the latter part of Paul’s first missionary journey:

They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ’We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Commentators assess the importance of these verses variously. A few, such as Stott, feel a pattern or policy for fulfilling the Great Commission is evident in the passage. Others focus on the emphasis given to the role of suffering in the Christian life (v. 22). Marshall, for example, says of the passage, ’Its importance lies in its teaching about the way in which the church must live in a hostile environment and equip itself accordingly.’ Still others seem primarily interested in what verse 23 reveals about elders in the local church. While none of these emphases is necessarily incorrect or unimportant, this study seeks to draw these strands together into a unified whole in Luke’s summary of Paul’s remarkable ministry in southern Galatia.

Making Disciples: The Fruit of Proclaiming the Good News

The passage begins with what is essentially a passing note on Paul and Barnabas’s successful evangelism in the city of Derbe: ’They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples’ (v. 21). Little else is known about the Christians in Derbe, except that Paul eventually returned to strengthen the church there (Acts 15:36, 41; 16:1, 5, and perhaps again in 18:23), and that Gaius, a member of that congregation, later accompanied Paul on part of his third missionary journey (20:4).

What is highly significant concerning the ministry in Derbe, however, is Luke’s use of the verb maqhteuvw (’make disciples’) in describing the results of Paul and Barnabas’s preaching. The only occurrence of this word other than in Matthew (13:52; 27:57; 28:19) is in Acts 14:21, where it is an aorist participle translated in the NIV as ’won . . . disciples.’ Why did Luke use this verb here? Was he in fact aware of Christ’s command to ’make disciples of all nations’?

Disciples (maqhtaiv) had been made before this time, for, as Wilkins explains, ’Throughout the book of Acts, disciples is a title for those who have placed their faith in Jesus and are now followers of Jesus, converts.’ To illustrate, those who are identified as ’believers’ in Acts 4:32 are also called ’disciples’ in 6:2 and ’the Lord’s disciples’ in 9:1. Further, those in Syrian Antioch who ’believed and turned to the Lord’ (11:21) are referred to as ’disciples’ and later are designated ’Christians’ (11:26). Thus it is no surprise that in 14:21 those who responded to the preaching of the good news (eujaggelisavmenoi) are identified as ’disciples,’ for ’evangelism is the starting point for making disciples.’ Whenever people ’turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus’ (20:21), they become disciples of Jesus.

However, as noted above, the verb ’make disciples’ had not been used previously in the Book of Acts to describe the fruit of proclaiming Christ, and there is surely a reason for this. Luter suggests that Acts 14:21-23 is ’a crucial moment for Luke to comment on the apostle’s disciple-making ministry in fulfillment of the Great Commission.’

In light of the summary nature of the narrative, one may rightly speculate that Luke deliberately used the word in order to show the scope of its fulfillment in Paul’s ministry. Luke had previously recorded in Acts 2:41-42 that Peter was essentially ’making disciples’ at Pentecost (though the term is not used) through evangelistic preaching, baptism, and teaching (the scope of the Great Commission as outlined by Jesus; Luke 24:47; Matt. 28:18-20). Apparently in Acts 14 Luke explicitly stated how the apostle began to ’make disciples of all nations’ by ’preaching the good news’ in a pagan city (with baptism likely to follow, as was Paul’s custom; cf. Acts 16:15, 33; 19:5). However, this only brings the reader through the first step in the process of fulfilling the Great Commission, and so Luke continued.

Nurturing Disciples: The Emphasis on Spiritual Growth

After spending some time with the ’large number of [new] disciples’ in Derbe (Acts 14:21a), Paul’s missionary team ’returned to Lystra, Iconium and [Pisidian] Antioch, strengthening the disciples [previously made in those cities] and encouraging them to remain true to the faith’ (vv. 21b-22a).

Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch had indeed been ripe for harvest (13:48-49; 14:1, 7, 20), but they were also (and apparently more so) hostile to the gospel and those who proclaimed it (13:50; 14:2, 5-6, 19; cf. 2 Tim. 3:11). ’It took courage to return to the very places that had resisted the gospel and mistreated the messengers, yet the decision to return was not dictated by bravado but by the practical necessity of shepherding the converts.’ (Longenecker, among others, notes that these cities experienced an annual change of administrators, and thus the danger may have subsided if such a change had occurred. )

This ’shepherding of converts’ was central to Paul’s understanding of his mission, as Bowers explains.

Insofar as the pattern of Paul’s plans and movements is available to us, there is no restless rushing from one new opening to another but rather a methodical progress concerned both with initiating work in new areas and at the same time with bringing the emergent groups in those areas to stable maturity.

Thus it should not be surprising to find the strengthening and encouraging of young disciples as the gospel progresses in the Book of Acts, and this is exactly the case. For example, as the gospel spread from Jerusalem to Antioch of Syria, Barnabas ’encouraged [the new disciples there] to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts’ (11:23) and ’for a whole year [he] and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people’ (v. 26). Further, at the outset of Paul’s second missionary journey, the apostle ’went through Syria and Cilicia [and Galatia] strengthening the churches’ (15:41; cf. 16:1, 5). Similarly on his third journey Paul ’traveled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples’ (18:23).

Such nurturing was far more than an afterthought in the wake of successful evangelism. It was (and is) central to the process of ’making disciples,’ as is seen in Acts 14:22a, and in the insightful analysis of this verse by Wilkins.

Luke’s wording suggests a connection with the discipleship process outlined by Jesus in the Great Commission, because ’strengthening the souls of the disciples’ and ’encouraging them to remain in the faith’ implies the kind of ’teaching them to observe all I commanded you’ that Jesus gave as the ongoing process of growth in discipleship.

What is perhaps not expected is the summary of the encouragement given to the disciples in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch: ’We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22b). As Bruce notes, ’It is almost taken for granted throughout the New Testament that tribulation is the normal lot of Christians in this age.’ (Note the word ’must’ [dei’] in the verse.) This is not to say that suffering is the means to obtaining salvation (for the Bible teaches otherwise), but rather that suffering is to be expected by those traveling along the narrow way of faith in Christ. Reflecting on his first missionary journey, Paul made this abundantly clear to Timothy: ’You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings--what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim. 3:10-12).

Paul was realistic as he nurtured new believers in the faith. While he certainly taught that the life of God’s kingdom consists in ’righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 14:17), he nevertheless emphasized the certainty of suffering (Phil. 1:29; 1 Thess. 3:2-4; 2 Thess. 1:5). The life of discipleship, according to the apostle, is not an easy one.

Organizing Disciples: the Provision of Spiritual Leadership

Such an emphasis on suffering might well lead to despair were it not for the ’encouragement from being united with Christ, [the] comfort from his love, [and the] fellowship with the Spirit’ that is experienced in the body of Christ (Phil. 2:1). And Paul was concerned with supplying new disciples with this very dynamic. In other words Paul’s goal was to plant churches that could provide ongoing nurture through qualified leaders. ’Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church’ (Acts 14:23).

’Disciples’ are now explicitly identified as members of a ’church,’ and this is what Paul had been working toward all along. As Bowers concludes,

Paul’s missionary vocation finds its sense of fulfillment in the presence of firmly established churches. What lies, in effect, within the compass of Paul’s familiar formula ’proclaiming the gospel’ is, I suggest, not simply an initial preaching mission but the full sequence of activities resulting in settled churches.

The importance of this approach can hardly be overstated with regard to fulfilling the Great Commission. The local church is vital in the process of making disciples.

Perhaps the single, most important development of discipleship illustrated in the book of Acts is the establishment of the community of disciples, the church. The community is what focuses the life of discipleship, provides the opportunities for growth in discipleship, and creates the environment for reproducing new generations of disciples.

Spiritual leadership is key to effective local church ministry, and Paul and Barnabas provided for this need as they established churches in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. In an apparently relatively short time, they were able to appoint in each church ’elders’ --those who had reached a certain level of spiritual maturity that enabled them to serve the church by strengthening and encouraging the disciples just as Paul and Barnabas had done.

While one may question whether such maturity could have been gained so quickly, it must be remembered that many Jews and God-fearing Gentiles were likely among the converts (cf. Acts 14:1), and their growth would have been understandably advanced. Further, as Bruce suggests, ’perhaps Paul and Barnabas were more conscious of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the communities,’ enabling them to identify God’s provision for leadership in each church. Whatever the case, it appears that Paul was not content to leave these cities until leaders were in place (cf. Titus 1:5).

One final observation, made by Stott, may be added concerning the provision of spiritual leadership: ’We notice that [the leadership] is both local and plural--local in that the elders were chosen from within the congregation, not imposed from without, and plural in that the familiar modern pattern of ’one pastor one church’ was simply unknown.’

Entrusting Disciples: The Commitment to God’s Care

Luke concluded his outline of Paul’s ministry through southern Galatia by noting that ’with prayer and fasting, [Paul and Barnabas] committed them [the elders and, by implication, the churches] to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust’ (Acts 14:23b).

The word translated ’committed’ (parevqento) was used by Jesus as He breathed His last words on the cross, ’Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23:46), and later by Paul as he bade farewell to the elders of the Ephesian church, ’Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace’ (Acts 20:32). This verb carries the sense of entrusting something to God’s care, and this is exactly how Paul left the churches he had founded on his missionary journey.

Having provided for the ongoing teaching of (and obedience to) everything Jesus commanded by appointing leaders in each community of disciples, the apostle then moved on.

Paul cast [disciples] entirely on God for their personal and corporate life. He would not have them tied to his apron strings. He visited them, wrote to them, and sent some of the missionary team to encourage them, but Paul never made the churches dependent on him.

The Apostle Paul surely understood, even in those early days of his ministry, that Jesus is the Head of the church (Col. 1:18), that each believer is indwelt by the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:22), and that the Lord, who began a good work in each community of disciples, would ’carry it on to completion’ (Phil. 1:6). In other words, as Allen observed, Paul ’believed that Christ was able and willing to keep that which he had committed to him.’

Having reached this point, Paul’s work of fulfilling the Great Commission in southern Galatia was over. The task of ’making disciples’ could now begin anew in each church that was nurtured, organized, and entrusted to the Lord.

Implications of This Study

The most obvious implication of this study concerns the nature and strategy of missionary work. A commitment to the Great Commission means little if one fails to understand the scope of Jesus’ command to ’make disciples.’ Acts 14:21-23 provides the clarification that is needed.

Just over a decade ago Engel rightly asked, ’Where is the local church in all our strategizing? How closely are our slogans and evangelistic methods tied to the creation of strong and vital local churches?’ His question remains valid today. Paul’s missionary activity in Acts 14:21-23 makes a strong case for fulfilling the Great Commission not only by preaching the good news (although this is the necessary first step), but also by nurturing new disciples and organizing them into churches that can eventually provide for their own growth in discipleship. The apostle refused to stop short of this, and missionaries today should do likewise.

But what of those who are not involved in missionary work (in the sense of cross-cultural church planting)? What can be learned and applied from Acts 14:21-23? A few brief implications may be offered, following the general structure of this study.

First, the discussion of verse 21 should make it abundantly clear that people become disciples the moment they believe the good news about Jesus Christ--not at some later point. As Willard creatively puts it,

The disciple of Jesus is not the deluxe or heavy-duty model of the Christian--especially padded, textured, streamlined, and empowered for the fast lane on the straight and narrow way. He stands on the pages of the New Testament as the first level of basic transportation in the kingdom of God.

The idea that one who has trusted in Christ for salvation is not yet a disciple of Jesus is not found in the Book of Acts. Rather, when a person becomes a Christian he or she embarks on the life of growing in the Lord as His disciple.

Second, following the example of Paul, older (i.e., more spiritually mature) disciples should be committed to strengthening and encouraging those who have begun the life of discipleship. It is not enough to rejoice in the decision people make to trust in Christ; older disciples must do all they can to help new disciples along in this commitment (and they should seek ongoing help for themselves as well).

Jesus made this clear when He declared that His followers should be ’teaching them to obey everything I have commanded’ (Matt. 28:20), including (and, according to Paul, especially) how to respond to the reality of suffering in the Christian life (Acts 14:22; cf. Matt. 5:10-12, 38-48; 1 Pet. 4:12-19). Therein lies a challenge--and a word of encouragement--for all those engaged in teaching others to know and live biblical truth (whatever the context). Such ministry, according to both Jesus and Paul, is vital to fulfilling the Great Commission.

Third, it should be kept in mind that ’to believe on Jesus draws a person into community, a community that defines its expectations, responsibilities, and privileges in terms of discipleship.’ Spiritual leadership is crucial to the success of such a community, and therefore older disciples should not fail to shepherd new disciples into (and commit themselves to) a well-led church. It is virtually impossible to grow as a disciple apart from the loving fellowship and pastoral leadership provided by a strong local church. Paul understood this clearly, and so should believers today.

Fourth, older disciples should trust the Lord with their lives--and with the lives of others. While they may play a significant role during certain stages of the spiritual growth of other followers of Christ, they should be content to let these disciples go (or urge them on) as God provides for their strengthening and encouragement in other ways. As Paul’s ministry indicates, this too is an important part of fulfilling the Great Commission.

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