When the church teaches about baptism, one of the things it often says is that baptism is the first step of discipleship.
I frequently taught this myself, but in recent years have come to discover that this is not exactly true.
When does Discipleship Begin?
Discipleship, I believe, begins the moment we are born, when Jesus, through the work of the Holy Spirit, begins us to draw us to Himself.
As we age, we learn about God, sin, righteousness, and judgment in a myriad of different ways. We learn about these through nature, our conscience, and if we have access to it, through the Bible. All of this, strictly speaking, is discipleship, since we are learning about who we are and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Along the way, some of us hear specifically about Jesus, and are persuaded to believe in Him for eternal life. Following this, we continue down the path of discipleship until we die. We discussed all this previously in the posts on evangelism.
In this way of thinking, discipleship is a life-long process; not something that begins once we believe.
If you disagree, just remember that there were many disciples of Jesus in the Gospels who did not believe in Jesus for eternal life, many of whom followed for a while, but then turned back. The greatest example, of course, is Judas Iscariot himself. He was not only a disciple, that is, a follower of Jesus, but was one of the twelve apostles. And yet, according to Scripture, Judas never did believe in Jesus and never did receive eternal life.
Baptism is Not the First Step in Discipleship
So we must not say that baptism is the first step in discipleship. It isn’t. If a person is baptized at all (more on that later), it is simply one of the many steps in a very long process.
Remember, after all, that in New Testament times, water baptism was simply a public declaration that you were dying to your past and were making a fresh start for a new future. This technically could be done at any place along the path of discipleship, and could theoretically be done numerous times depending on the aspect of your life you were dying to. Jewish people, remember, were baptized at least once a year.
Early Christian Baptism
Having said all this, however, it is nevertheless quite true that in the book of Acts, new converts to Christianity were often baptized in water quite soon after their conversion. This was not always the case (cf. Apollos in Acts 18:24–19:5), but is generally true. Aside from this, one of the main reasons people often think that baptism is a first step in discipleship is because of what Jesus says in Matthew 28:19-20.
People who speak and write about this verse often correctly note that the main verb in the passage is “make disciples” and all the other clauses explain how. No complaint from me here, as long as we understand that making disciples involves much more than filling people’s heads with Bible knowledge. Again, we went through in the chapter on evangelism, when I argued that evangelism is gospelism, which is also known as discipleship.
So what then is Jesus saying Matthew 28:19-20 when He talks about baptism as an element to making disciples? We will look at this tomorrow. Don’t miss it, because I think you will be shocked.